Browsing Tag

International Space Station

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet The NASA Rocket Women That Kept The Space Station Flying During Hurricane Harvey: Part 2

8 September, 2017

Jessica Tramaglini on-console in NASA's Mission Control Center [Copyright: NASA, Photographer: Bill Stafford]

Jessica Tramaglini on-console in NASA’s Mission Control Center [Copyright: NASA, Photographer: Bill Stafford]

In a special four-part feature, Rocket Women are highlighting the untold stories of the dedicated Orbit1 team that remained in Mission Control at NASA Johnson Space Center to tirelessly battle Hurricane Harvey, keeping the space station flying and the astronauts onboard safe.

These resilient individuals slept in Mission Control for days through the hurricane, maintaining communication and support from the ground to the space station and it’s occupants.

The second interview in this series features Jessica Tramaglini. Jessica’s role is to manage the International Space Station’s Power and External Thermal Control or ‘SPARTAN’ in NASA’s Mission Control Center.

What was the path to get to where you are now? How were you inspired to consider a career in the space industry?

We have such a diverse group of people who work in Mission Control in Houston who come from a variety of backgrounds. I personally attended college to study aerospace engineering, receiving a B.S. in Aerospace Engineering from Penn State University and then started working here. I grew up inspired by space, and knew I wanted to work in Mission Control after attending Space Camp at 12 years-old.

I grew up inspired by space, and knew I wanted to work in Mission Control after attending Space Camp at 12 years-old.

What does your average day look like in your role?

One of the best parts about my role is that there is really no ‘average’ day. Each day brings new and exciting challenges, such as training new flight controllers, working with other groups to update procedures and flight rules, and of course, working console.

Our goal on-console [in Mission Control] was just to keep the crew safe and the vehicle [International Space Station] working

Jessica Tramaglini on-console in Mission control supporting Expedition 45, during prelaunch and launch of Expedition 45/Visiting Crew (Cosmonaut Sergey Volkov, European Space Agency Astronaut Andreas Mogensen & Cosmonaut Aidyn Aimbetov) launching on Soyuz TMA-18M from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan  [Copyright: NASA, Photographer: James Blair]

Jessica Tramaglini on-console in Mission control supporting
Expedition 45, during prelaunch and launch of Expedition 45/Visiting Crew (Cosmonaut Sergey Volkov, European Space Agency Astronaut Andreas Mogensen & Cosmonaut Aidyn Aimbetov) launching on Soyuz TMA-18M from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan
[Copyright: NASA, Photographer: James Blair]

Describe your experience of being on-console during Hurricane Harvey?

Our goal on console was just to keep the crew safe and the vehicle working, minimizing any complicated tasks that could be postponed. The amount of support we received from each other and from people outside checking in on us was amazing.

What was the hardest part of maintaining ISS operations from Mission Control in Houston during Hurricane Harvey?

Especially working the overnight shift where I had to try to sleep during the day, staying in touch with family to let them know I was safe, and keeping in touch with friends who were experiencing flooding was difficult. Once you sat down to console for your shift, you had to block all of that out and focus on the job.

Has this experienced changed you from a professional or personal perspective?

This experience has just reinforced what a special group of people I have the honor of working with. They are incredibly supportive, organized, and everyone steps up to help when they are able.

What has been the most rewarding moment in your career so far?

I really can’t pick one single moment, but watching flight controllers you have trained succeed, and working console for Soyuz undockings are extremely rewarding opportunities that I’ve been fortunate enough to experience.

If you want something, set your mind to it, and go for it.

If you had one piece of advice for your 10-year-old self, what would it be?

If you want something, set your mind to it, and go for it. Goals can’t be achieved without taking a risk. You may stumble along the way, but learn from your experiences and keep your eye on the prize.

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet The Rocket Women In Mission Control That Kept The Space Station Flying During Hurricane Harvey

3 September, 2017

The Orbit1 Flight Control Team: Dorothy Ruiz, Natalie Gogins, Fiona Turett, Jessica Tramaglini [Source: Twitter https://twitter.com/DorothyRuiz/status/903259274004099072]

The Orbit1 Flight Control Team: Dorothy Ruiz, Natalie Gogins, Fiona Turett, Jessica Tramaglini [Source: Twitter https://twitter.com/DorothyRuiz/status/903259274004099072]

As the devastating effects of Hurricane Harvey unfolded in Houston, a dedicated team in Mission Control at NASA Johnson Space Center battled the storm to tirelessly ensure that International Space Station operations continued and that the astronauts onboard the space station remained safe. These amazing individuals showed resilience by literally sleeping in Mission Control for days throughout the storm, ensuring that communications from the ground to the space station remained online. The Orbit1 team (one team of three) pictured consisted of Dorothy Ruiz, Natalie Gogins, Fiona Turett, Jessica Tramaglini and Flight Director Anthony Vareha.

Rocket Women was fortunate to talk to these amazing individuals about the challenges they faced to keep Mission Control online. The first interview in a series featuring the resilient Orbit1 team highlights Dorothy Ruiz, Ground Control, whose cruicial role it is to keep Mission Control connected to the International Space Station through satellite communications. Dorothy’s story is particularly inspiring. She chased her dream to work in space, coming from a family of migrant workers, overcoming obstacles that took her from a small town in the desert to Mission Control at NASA Johnson Space Center.

What was the path to get to where you are now? How were you inspired to consider a career in the space industry? 

I grew up with my Grandparents in central Mexico in a small town of Matehuala, located in the desert of state of San Luis Potosí.  At that time, the town had about 140,000 habitants. Almost every night, I would admire the stars in the sky from the roof of my Grandparent’s house.  We were a family of migrant workers, so we would travel to the U.S. every summer to work on the fields of North America.

Every night, I would admire the stars in the sky from the roof of my Grandparent’s house.  We were a family of migrant workers, so we would travel to the U.S. every summer to work on the fields of North America.

One day, someone came to speak to us about space at the school for kids of migrant workers, and even though I didn’t understand much of what was going on due to the language barrier, I did get to see some space objects. Even though this was a limited exposure to what NASA was all about, I became more curious and intrigued about space.

Working in the fields, there was not much hope for ever launching a career in space, or any career at all.  My Grandma only went to 3rd grade, and Grandpa was only able to finish elementary school.

Working in the fields, there was not much hope for ever launching a career in space, or any career at all.  My Grandma only went to 3rd grade, and Grandpa was only able to finish elementary school. So the outlook for me as far as reaching a higher education, was not that great. However, there was an event that changed my destiny in 1986: the Space Shuttle Challenger accident. I was standing in front of the TV watching the replayed images of the failed ascent and the explosion.  I had many questions in my mind, such as how does the space shuttle work, how does it take men to space, why did it explode?

Back in my hometown, I didn’t have many answers to my questions from the people who surrounded me; this became a personal quest to search for these answers. I was determined to one day, pursue a career in space exploration.  My interest in math and science deepened in school. I finished 9th grade in Mexico, and moved to Houston.  I started at McArthur High School, and graduated from Humble High School with honors. I was offered scholarships at the University of Oklahoma and started pursuing a degree in Aerospace Engineering, however, the school of Aerospace Engineering was canceled due to lack of interest and funding (there were only 20 men enrolled, and only 1 girl, me).

I landed my first job at NASA as an Astronaut Instructor for the Guidance Control and Propulsion Systems of the Space Shuttle. As I certified in my first lesson as an Instructor, I realized, I had already found the answers to all the questions I had as a little girl.  It was the closing chapter of a journey of curiosity and exploration.

We were given the choice to merge into Mechanical Engineering, or transfer to another school.  I transferred to Texas A&M University, and graduated with the class of 2003 with a Bachelor of Science in Aerospace Engineering. During my college years, I was an intern with the NASA Langley Aerospace Scholars, and then I started a co-op rotation with United Space Alliance at Johnson Space Center.  The funny thing is, I landed my first job at NASA JSC as an Astronaut Instructor for the Guidance Control and Propulsion Systems of the Space Shuttle.  I am not sure if it was coincidence, but as I certified in my first lesson as an Instructor, I realized, I had already found the answers to all the questions I had as a little girl.  It was the closing chapter of a journey of curiosity and exploration.

We keep the ground connected to the International Space Station via satellite communications.

Dorothy Ruiz in Mission Control at NASA Johnson Space Center during Hurricane Harvey. (Copyright: Dorothy Ruiz. Source: https://twitter.com/DorothyRuiz/status/903259274004099072)

Dorothy Ruiz in Mission Control at NASA Johnson Space Center during Hurricane Harvey. [Copyright: Dorothy Ruiz. Source: https://twitter.com/DorothyRuiz/status/903259274004099072]

What does your average day look like in your role?

I am currently Ground Control, better known as Houston GC. We are the house keepers of the Mission Control Center (MCC), and we monitor the integrity of the signal communications processed between MCC Houston to White Sands, and to the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS). Big picture, we keep the ground connected to the International Space Station via satellite communications.  We usually support console operations one week and one weekend per month, including shifts requiring extra support, such as space vehicle docking/undocking, space vehicle launches, and step-ups (we disconnect the ground from the International Space Station (ISS) for software upgrades).

Other routine tasks include: processing and routing all video and audio coming from the ISS, privatizing video and audio crew conferences, routing ISS telemetry to the rest of the flight controllers, routing data to our international partners, and supporting simulations. The rest of the time is spent in the office, working on projects, although to be honest, this is quite a luxury, GCs are hardly in the office, since we are so busy all the time.

Only essential personnel and Flight Controllers were riding out the storm in MCC supporting space operations, and most of us were camping out due to the heavy rains and the flooding. I decided to camp out since Sunday morning to start to sleep shift, so I brought pillows, covers, toiletries, extra clothes, and extra food.

Describe your experience of being on-console during Hurricane Harvey? 

I started to support Orbit1 console operations in Mission Control during Hurricane Harvey on Sunday night of August 27th. Only essential personnel and Flight Controllers were riding out the storm in MCC supporting space operations, and most of us were camping out due to the heavy rains and the flooding. I decided to camp out since Sunday morning to start to sleep shift, so I brought pillows, covers, toiletries, extra clothes, and extra food.

Prior to the hurricane, we were given access to the crew sleeping quarters in case we needed to sleep there, however, hardly anyone went there due to the heavy rain on JSC campus (the crew sleeping quarters are not nearby MCC). Instead, cots were placed all over MCC: Simulator rooms, other MCC control centers such as the Blue FCR and the White FCR, and ground control support areas for maintenance personnel and other controllers who support Houston GC.

I live close by, but it wasn’t safe to drive back home. I can say it was not the most comfortable thing to sleep in the cots, however, I was grateful to have a place to stay while others were not so fortunate.

Mine was in a GC backroom, where we schedule the satellite time in support of ISS operations, so I decided to make it my sleeping quarters for privacy. I live close by, but it wasn’t safe to drive back home. I can say it was not the most comfortable thing to sleep in the cots, however, I was grateful to have a place to stay while others were not so fortunate. I did get to go home once it stopped raining to freshen up, but I heard other Flight Controllers were using the showers in a building next to MCC. Some of my colleagues who support Ground operations didn’t get to go home at all because they live across town; it was too unsafe to navigate through flooded roads.

Other Flight Controllers were not relieved, because the Flight Controllers coming to support the shift, got stuck on the roads or their houses got flooded. So, you can imagine how tired everyone was.

Other Flight Controllers were not relieved, because the Flight Controllers coming to support the shift, got stuck on the roads or their houses got flooded. So, you can imagine how tired everyone was. Also, some etiquette rules were lifted for frozen foods in the refrigerators– all the frozen food there was fair game if someone didn’t have any food to eat. Is that considered looting? Ha, ha. Luckily, we had potable water all the time, backup electricity, internet, and the most important thing:  coffee!!!

During my down time, while I was not supporting console operations, I would check on my family by phone to make sure they were okay, provide statuses to friends and family members who were worried, catch up on work, do walkthroughs of MCC [Mission Control Center], check on our support personnel and, of course, watch the news over the internet.

It was hard to see how people were flooding out there, the rescue efforts, the stories; it was quite an emotional time to be there and not be able to go out to help others; there was this feeling of impotence.  However, we had a mission of our own to accomplish, and a darn big one: to keep MCC safe, and to keep supporting human spaceflight.

It was hard to see how people were flooding out there, the rescue efforts, the stories; it was quite an emotional time to be there and not be able to go out to help others; there was this feeling of impotence.  However, we had a mission of our own to accomplish, and a darn big one: to keep MCC safe, and to keep supporting human spaceflight. On the bright side of things, there was time for bonding between all of us, some stories to share, and an opportunity to know people through their personal stories. We also witnessed the generosity from others, who cooked meals in their houses, and brought the food to MCC so we could eat home-made meals and fruit. We saw messages of encouragement from Astronaut Peggy Whitson, and from kids in Chicago who sent us drawings thanking us for the time and sacrifice riding out the storm at MCC.

Dorothy Ruiz in her sleeping quarters during Hurricane Harvey, a Ground Control backroom, where satellite time is scheduled in support of ISS operations. [Copyright: Dorothy Ruiz. Source: https://twitter.com/DorothyRuiz/status/903259274004099072]

Dorothy Ruiz in her sleeping quarters during Hurricane Harvey, a Ground Control backroom, where satellite time is scheduled in support of ISS operations. [Copyright: Dorothy Ruiz. Source: https://twitter.com/DorothyRuiz/status/903259274004099072]

Did you volunteer to be on-console for the weekend or were contingency plans in place?

It just happened it was the week of the month for me to support graveyard shifts in MCC.  Oh lucky me!

The crew [onboard the ISS] was updated on a regular basis.  However, I don’t think they realized the Flight Control Team was riding out the storm –not until they somehow found out we were sleeping in cots.  That’s when we got a message from Peggy [NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson].  Certainly, the message was encouraging to read.

What was the hardest part of maintaining ISS operations from MCC-H during Hurricane Harvey? Were the onboard crew given regular updates as to the situation in Houston?

The crew was updated on a regular basis. However, I don’t think they realized the Flight Control Team was riding out the storm –not until they somehow found out we were sleeping in cots. That’s when we got a message from Peggy. Certainly, the message was encouraging to read. As Houston-GC, the hardest part about this was making sure the MCC building was in good conditions. At some point, we had to keep track of all the leaks going on in MCC. This was a concern, because some of the leaks could affect our equipment processing the signal coming into MCC, or going out to the ISS for that matter.

We lost some power in MCC at some point, so the hallways were dark. We also had to improvise and plan-ahead in preparation for the Soyuz undocking, since we lost some of our video routing capabilities due to flooding in the building that processes video.

We had to make a list, and revise the list every few hours to provide update to Flight and the whole team.  We lost some power in MCC at some point, so the hallways were dark. We also had to improvise and plan-ahead in preparation for the Soyuz undocking, since we lost some of our video routing capabilities due to flooding in the building that processes video.

I must say, I feel proud of the Ground Control Team, such as the Network Communications Officer, the Communications Technicians, the Support Center, the Security Officer, the Johnson TV crew, and the maintenance personnel who were making round checks all over the building, vacuuming out water, reporting to us on the status of the building, and sleeping between breaks; these are the folk who didn’t get to go home.

I never heard them complain about anything, they were just proudly doing their jobs with much dedication despite the circumstances and despite being away from their loved ones. They are the real heroes of this story.

I never heard them complain about anything, they were just proudly doing their jobs with much dedication despite the circumstances and despite being away from their loved ones. They are the real heroes of this story. The maintenance personnel were making sure the MCC building was safe so we could do our jobs, along with the security guards at the JSC campus, and others who stayed to protect other facilities. These guys are the epitome of what ground control operations is all about: dedication and toughness, especially in tough times.

These guys are the epitome of what ground control operations is all about: dedication and toughness, especially in tough times.

Dorothy Ruiz's sleeping quarters at Mission Control during Hurricane Harvey, a Ground Control backroom where satellite time is usually scheduled [Copyright: Dorothy Ruiz. Source: https://twitter.com/DorothyRuiz/status/903259274004099072]

Dorothy Ruiz’s sleeping quarters at Mission Control during Hurricane Harvey, a Ground Control backroom where satellite time is usually scheduled [Copyright: Dorothy Ruiz. Source: https://twitter.com/DorothyRuiz/status/903259274004099072]

Did the MCC-H [Mission Control Center Houston] team consider to activate the Backup Advisory Team (BAT) [a way to remotely connect to Mission Control] or transfer operations to Hunstville [where the Backup Control Centre is based] during this period? 

It was considered at some point, but it was a difficult decision to make due to the uncertainty of the path of the hurricane.  In retrospect, no one could foresee the great impact of the hurricane in Houston, especially with the flooding. This has been a one in a lifetime event. However, part of the Backup Control Center (BCC) was activated due to damage to the building that processes the ISS video coming to MCC.  We configured some of our equipment in MCC so the video could be archived in Huntsville.

We are not just the House Keepers of MCC, but also a life boat.

Has this experienced changed you from a professional or personal perspective?

This experience has changed me in both ways. I appreciate even more the job we do as Ground Controllers, now I can really say, we are not just the House Keepers of MCC, but also a life boat. Those who underestimate the contributions of ground control operations as a team to manned space flight and space exploration should seek a different perspective, and take a closer look at what we do to keep MCC safe and operational so everyone can do their job.  We not only keep the ground connected to the ISS, we also keep it floating.

I would never imagine one day, I would be here sleeping in cots, making sure MCC is safe and Mission Operations are safe, to keep human spaceflight going.  This for sure will be a story to tell my grandkids one day, what a story.

Personally, I appreciate getting to know other colleagues while sharing the stories of strength and struggle during such turbulent days. I would never imagine one day, I would be here sleeping in cots, making sure MCC is safe and Mission Operations are safe, to keep human spaceflight going.  This for sure will be a story to tell my grandkids one day, what a story.

It is my personal quest to inspire those who like me, had life struggles growing up, and could never imagine becoming an Engineer or working at such a great place like NASA. However, with this recent experience, it is my hope, we inspire others with our work ethic:  Dedication, Toughness and Competence.  That’s what we embody, that’s who we are.

What has been the most rewarding moment in your career so far?

The most rewarding thing in my career has been to inspire others with all the work we do at NASA, and it is my personal quest to inspire those who like me, had life struggles growing up, and could never imagine becoming an Engineer or working at such a great place like NASA. However, with this recent experience, it is my hope, we inspire others with our work ethic:  Dedication, Toughness and Competence.  That’s what we embody, that’s who we are.

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet The Rocket Women That Brought The International Space Station to Google Street View

7 August, 2017

The experience of floating through the International Space Station is no longer solely the privilege of astronauts. Now you can experience it too. Thanks to an ingenious and hardworking team of Rocket Women from ThinkSpace Consulting, along with Google, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), the International Space Station is now available to explore on Google Street View. Working with astronauts, the entire interior of the International Space Station was photographed and mapped, even bringing the stunning vistas from the Cupola module to your screen. The project impressively took four months to complete from start to finish. Comparatively, experiments that astronauts conduct onboard on the ISS have been planned for at least two years.

The stunning views from the International Space Station's Cupola module [Still taken from Google StreetView]

The stunning views from the International Space Station’s Cupola module [Still from Google StreetView]

Rocket Women Marla Smithwick, Operations Engineer, and Ann Kapusta, Co-Founders at ThinkSpace Consulting, worked with NASA, Google, CASIS and the European Space Agency to develop a plan for astronauts to map the International Space Station, solely using equipment already onboard the station.

Marla Smithwick, Operations Engineer & Co-Founder, ThinkSpace Consulting

Marla Smithwick, Operations Engineer & Co-Founder, ThinkSpace Consulting [Still taken from Behind the Scenes: Mapping the International Space Station with Google Street View https://youtu.be/IBTP62jd4DA]

The team only had two days to work in NASA’s International Space Station (ISS) scale mock up facilities at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas to develop a mapping strategy, with their biggest challenge being camera stabilization in the microgravity environment onboard the ISS, in addition to the fact that the astronaut would be floating whilst operating the equipment.

Alice Liu - Google Street View [Still from Behind the Scenes: Mapping the International Space Station with Google Street View  https://youtu.be/IBTP62jd4DA]

Alice Liu – Google Street View Program Manager [Still taken from Behind the Scenes: Mapping the International Space Station with Google Street View https://youtu.be/IBTP62jd4DA]

Deanna Yick. Google Street View Program Manager [Still from Behind the Scenes: Mapping the International Space Station with Google Street View https://youtu.be/IBTP62jd4DA]

Deanna Yick. Google Street View Program Manager [Still taken from Behind the Scenes: Mapping the International Space Station with Google Street View https://youtu.be/IBTP62jd4DA]

The Google and ThinkSpace Consulting team eventually decided to use bungee cords to stabilize the camera with images taken by the astronaut rotating around the bungee cords, to prevent parallax. Parallax as, Deanna Yick from Google explains is, “When images are taken from a slightly different angle and are stitched together, with a seam visible where it shouldn’t.”

The Google Street View and ThinkSpace Consulting team discussing their mapping method with NASA Astronaut Kjell Lindgren

The Google Street View and ThinkSpace Consulting team discussing their mapping method with NASA Astronaut Kjell Lindgren [Still taken from Behind the Scenes: Mapping the International Space Station with Google Street View https://youtu.be/IBTP62jd4DA]

When you look down at the Earth you realize that it’s one big spaceship and if we don’t look after that spaceship, it won’t look after us. – NASA Astronaut Kjell Lindgren

The impressive project gives you a sense of the science and engineering it took to build the International Space Station’ with a volume of 5-bedroom house, or two 747s, and keep it running. As NASA Astronaut Kjell Lindgren describes in this video, the project also ‘gives you an idea of what is possible if countries come together to build a peaceful project on this scale and gives people an idea of the modules in the ISS, including the toilets.’ Based at NASA’s Marshall Spaceflight Center, the team scheduled a test, with ISS crewmember ESA Astronaut Thomas Pesquet taking photographs onboard the ISS.

Marla Smithwick on console communicating with ESA Astronaut Thomas Pesquet onboard the International Space Station

Marla Smithwick on-console communicating with ESA Astronaut Thomas Pesquet onboard the International Space Station [Still taken from Behind the Scenes: Mapping the International Space Station with Google Street View https://youtu.be/IBTP62jd4DA]

It’s a fantastic opportunity for everyone to fly with the astronauts.

ThinkSpace Consulting Operations Engineer and Co-Founder Marla Smithwick, supported the activity ‘on-console’ by communicating with ESA Astronaut Thomas Pesquet onboard the ISS. Astronauts subsequently took images of all of the ISS modules, creating a comprehensive interior tour. As Marla describes, bungees and kapton tape were used to mark the middle of the ISS module and as a reference point to rotate the camera around. The original activity with Thomas Pesquet took the astronaut two and a half hours to take pictures of the space station. Astronauts are trained extensively in photography prior to their mission, and worked with the team to quickly overcome any problems in real time. The Google Street View ISS collection gives viewers a sense of what it’s like to live and work onboard the ISS, in addition to digitising the station for history. As mentioned by the Google Street View team, it’s a ‘fantastic opportunity for everyone to fly with the astronauts.’

ThinkSpace Consulting Co-Founders Marla Smithwick & Ann Kapusta talked to Rocket Women about the project and their role in its success!

How were you inspired to consider a career in the space industry?

Marla: I’m sure that most people will tell you that when they were a kid they thought space was cool, and I think I did too. But I wasn’t a big space geek and it was too out of reach for me to consider a career in it.  Then when I was in Grade 7 I was selected to do some sort of space camp, where we spent a few days at the University of Saskatchewan learning about space, designing our own space station, and at the end we met Astronaut Marc Garneau.  I realize that’s dating me a bit – but it was a big deal to twelve-year old me.  Then in 2006 I met a Colonel who worked at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) when I was doing a tour with the Canadian Navy.  I realized that I wanted to work at the CSA more than any other job I could think of, so I immediately began hassling him for a job. About 6 months later he finally relented and arranged an interview. They offered to do it over the phone but I asked if it was okay if I made the six-hour drive to do it in person.  I remember when I was walking up to the CSA for the interview I thought, “Well, even if I don’t get this job at least I got to go into the Canadian Space Agency on business once in my life”.

Ann Kapusta, ThinkSpace Consulting Co-Founder, at NASA Johnson Space Center's Mission Control

Ann Kapusta, ThinkSpace Consulting Co-Founder, at NASA Johnson Space Center’s Apollo-era Mission Control

What sparked the idea to bring the International Space Station To Google Street View?

Marla: To be honest I don’t know! It was a great idea but it wasn’t mine. We were brought into the project by Google after they had tried to get it done and hadn’t gotten traction on their own. It was quite lucky for us and because we know the industry and what the issues were with their original proposal we were able to get it approved by CASIS with some fun add-ons like flight patches and crew member interviews.

Ann: The idea actually stemmed back in early 2015 from a good friend and old colleague of mine, Emma Lehman, who was working at Google and had met Alice Liu, the ISS Google Street View Program Manager. Emma, being a space fanatic like myself, got to talking with Alice about how amazing it would be to experience the ISS in full 360-degree panorama and get a feeling of floating through our incredible orbiting laboratory.  Emma, knowing that Marla and I had just started ThinkSpace and knew we had the ability to make this pipe dream a reality, introduced Google Street View Special Collects to ThinkSpace and the rest is history.

There were two major challenges with this project that were incredibly intertwined – the project timeline and the international negotiations. Google had a strict timeline and after all proper contracts were in place, the timeline shrunk to a mere 4-months from project kick-off to full collection of all images on-board the ISS.

What were the biggest challenges during the project?

Marla: The timeline was very challenging, we were trying to meet a product launch date that was less than a year away.  Most payloads take a minimum of two years of preparation time.

AnnThere were two major challenges with this project that were incredibly intertwined – the project timeline and the international negotiations. Google had a strict timeline and after all proper contracts were in place, the timeline shrunk to a mere 4-months from project kick-off to full collection of all images on-board the ISS. In this 4-month timeframe, ThinkSpace needed to act quickly to develop requirements, build crew procedures, gain permissions to hardware on-board, dry-run the procedures at Johnson Space Center ISS mock-up facility, specify crew time for project completion, obtain approval for flight products, among other logistics.

One of the key other logistics that ThinkSpace needed to coordinate and could make or break the success of the ISS Street View project, was to gain permission to image non-NASA built modules of the ISS.  The ISS is made up of 16 modules built by a group of International partners and commercial companies including NASA, Roscosmos, JAXA, ESA, and Bigelow Airspace. In the end, we not only gained permission and enthusiastic collaboration from all International Partners to image the full ISS, but we also received permissions from private companies SpaceX and Orbital to image visiting vehicles and get an incredible comprehensive survey of life on the ISS. This was a huge challenge and a personal success for me in the project that we have a full and complete tour of the ISS for everyone to see.

ThinkSpace Consulting Operations Engineer & Co-Founder Marla Smithwick communicating wtih ESA Astronaut Thomas Pesquet onboard the ISS

ThinkSpace Consulting Operations Engineer & Co-Founder Marla Smithwick communicating wtih ESA Astronaut Thomas Pesquet onboard the ISS [Still taken from Behind the Scenes: Mapping the International Space Station with Google Street View https://youtu.be/IBTP62jd4DA]

How did the four-month timeline that you mentioned in the behind-the-scenes video come about?

Marla: We received approval from CASIS to do the project in October or November, and did the dry-run at JSC [NASA’s Johnson Spaceflight Center in Houston] in January and the on-orbit operations in February.  Once we were approved we were off and running.

I have always had a courageous mind and sought opportunities to challenge myself and continue to learn, which ultimately has lead me in a chaotically consistent career journey. Consistency in that I have maintained focus on my passion for space, exploration, and innovation. Chaotic in the twists and turns I’ve taken while following my passion and desire to keep learning and pushing myself throughout my career.

Was there anything unexpected about your career journey that you thought would be different to your initial expectations?

Ann: I have always had a courageous mind and sought opportunities to challenge myself and continue to learn, which ultimately has lead me in a chaotically consistent career journey. Consistency in that I have maintained focus on my passion for space, exploration, and innovation. Chaotic in the twists and turns I’ve taken while following my passion and desire to keep learning and pushing myself throughout my career.

I started out a scientist, earning my degree in astrophysics. I studied cataclysmic binary variable stars at Kitt Peak Observatory and sought patterns in Ionspheric disturbances at the Haystack Observatory. The science was exciting but I always wanted to know the hows behind the data – so I transitioned to aerospace engineering. A pretty uncharacteristic move for a scientist. Utilizing my dual degree – I spent time in satellite data analysis, instrument calibration design and testing, and operations. Until I decided to take another courageous leap from satellites to a different world in space – human spaceflight. And even weirder, into designing and running a biological experiment in space – with no formal background in biology. And if that wasn’t enough organized chaos for my whole career, I recently took the most courageous leap of all and left Silicon Valley and aerospace to lead the R&D team at a digital innovation company, Vectorform, in Detroit. All while co-founding and running a space consulting company, ThinkSpace, in order to maintain a constant connection to my consistent lifelong passion of astronomy and space.

How did your family help to shape your career path in STEM?

Ann: My family has always been and continues to be a huge contributing factor in my career and lifelong interest in the STEM fields. My family not only exposed me to the wonders of science and engineering from an early age, but also gave me constant and unfailing encouragement to always follow my passion no matter what. I grew up in a family of engineers and machinists in the Western Pennsylvania rust belt, and was the second of two daughters. From as far back as I can remember, my parents and grandparents taught my sister and I how things worked and to always ask questions when we didn’t understand. They were tinkerers, so we became tinkerers. They were critical thinkers, so we became critical thinkers and problem solvers. They taught us to wonder when things didn’t make sense and to think beyond when things did.

My father taught me to program CAD models for lathes and mills in the early 90’s. I played with LEGO, Barbie, and all of the original NES Mario Brothers games. There was never a thing I “shouldn’t” be doing or “should” be doing when it came to learning, all that mattered is that I was exploring and asking questions. When I look back now, I think the main thing that my family did to help me find my career was provide me constant encouragement of personal exploration to find my passion and never discouragement of any path. It allowed me to find and follow my true passion.

The ISS Google Street View Mission Patch [ThinkSpace/Google]

The ISS Google Street View Mission Patch [ThinkSpace/Google]

What else did you want to be when you were growing up?

Ann: Throughout my life I’ve wanted to be a lot of different things – from marine biologist to concert pianist to architect. I was always passionate about learning new things and each new thing opened up a new career opportunity. However, the more I journeyed through life, the more I looked to the stars and the more they inspired me. The ability to be part of a field so vast and so unknown, fuels my desire to always push what’s possible and to never stop learning throughout my life. Once I realized that the boundlessness of space mimicked my requirements for personal fulfillment, I knew astronomy was where I wanted to take my career.

What are you favourite things about your job?

Ann: My favorite thing about this career path and my job is the constant opportunity to learn and create something new.  I have the ability to be innovative and solve problems in unique and new ways, and I have access to some incredibly smart people to inspire me, teach, and collaborate with.  It is something that is so critically important to me – to do something I am passionate about, continue to learn, have the opportunity to be creative and innovative, and to make a difference.  And I get to do all of those things in my job and I couldn’t be happier with my career choices.

Name the biggest overall lesson you’ve learned in running a business?

Marla: There are so many lessons. The biggest for me is appreciating the different mindset you have to be in when all of the responsibility is on you, and the amount you make is dependent on your ability to get business, negotiate and be efficient. And that percentage companies charge called “overhead” is totally legit.

I took a very meandering path to where I am but if I’m being honest with myself, the failures were just as important in contributing to the direction as the successes.

Is there a follow-up Google Street View project planned as the ISS expands or to incorporate commercial crew vehicles?

Marla: This time around we got the BEAM [Bigelow Expandable Activity Module], the SpaceX Dragon and the Cygnus vehicles so the cooperation from the commercial companies was fantastic. Once commercial crew vehicles are flying that would be a great follow-on project!  We are discussing some other projects, some on the ISS and some not, but nothing is on paper as of yet.

If you had one piece of advice for your 10-year-old self, what would it be?

Marla: That’s tough because usually advice comes from things you feel like you could’ve done better. I took a very meandering path to where I am but if I’m being honest with myself, the failures were just as important in contributing to the direction as the successes.  So maybe that’s the advice – don’t beat yourself up too badly for the failures, just try to learn from them and keep moving.  Oh and I would like to tell my past self that at the end of my final exam in senior year of high school I really need to pick up my feet so I don’t trip and fall on my face in front of the whole class.  That would’ve been nice to avoid.

Ann: Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid to try. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, even when they may seem dumb. Don’t be afraid to change your mind or your career or your path when you aren’t happy or fulfilled. Don’t be afraid to say “no” when something doesn’t feel right and don’t be afraid to stand up and say “yes” when you feel it. Don’t be afraid to stand alone (even though I know from experience that is incredibly scary). Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself and what you believe in. Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t be afraid to do something different.  And don’t be afraid to be an inspiration to others.

This isn’t just advice that I would give to my 10-year-old self, but advice that I give to myself every day. In the career I chose and the path I am on, some days are still tough and some days are scary, but that comes with the territory of challenging yourself to so something new and incredible every single day.

Take a tour of the International Space Station on Google Street View and learn more about the project here.